Today’s post in our ongoing series of guest bloggers comes from the amazing Amber Hacker, Network Engagement Coordinator at the Interfaith Youth Core. Below, Amber reflects on a few atheists who inspire her and the kinds of honest and respectful conversations atheists and Christians can have. Take it away, Amber!

crossA few months ago I told my friend Chris Stedman, a former Christian and current atheist, that there’s nothing I’d love to see more than for him to come back to Christ.

This is true, except a part of me would be disappointed if that happened, because Chris is such an important leader in the interfaith youth movement who represents a much needed non-religious voice.

Our conversation is not a typical one between a conservative Christian and an atheist. The reason Chris and I were able to have that difficult conversation is because of the relationship we’ve built with one other through working at the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

A big part of my job at IFYC is answering calls and e-mails from folks interested in getting involved in the interfaith youth movement, but aren’t sure if they have a place. I can’t tell you how often I hear “I’m really inspired by this message, but can I be involved in interfaith work if I am [insert blank here — atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, non-religious, seeking, etc.]?”

My answer? “Yes! You absolutely have a seat at the table, and we need you in this movement.”

Let me tell you about these folks that inspire me on a daily basis – my secular/atheist/agnostic heroes.

greg-epsteinGreg Epstein, Harvard Humanist Chaplain and recent author of the bestseller “Good Without God,” is a good friend to IFYC and an important voice for those that identify as non-religious. I got to know Greg when I organized IFYC’s 2009 conference, Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World. Greg was one of our most popular conference speakers because people in this movement, both religious and non-religious, are hungry for his message — that secular humanism should have with respectful relationship with religion (and I would argue, vice-versa).

ChristinaGreta Christina, author of the widely-read Greta Christina’s Blog. While I don’t know Greta personally, she taught me that we have a lot more in common than what we have different. For example, 95 percent of what makes Greta angry makes me angry too.

Mary Ellen GiessMary Ellen Giess, an incredibly skilled staff member here at the IFYC. Mary Ellen, who is a humanist, helps me better articulate my identity as a Christian. She is such an important ally for the non-religious to this movement.

The Author

And of course, Chris Stedman, who is a dear friend and founder of NonProphet Status, one of the most talented interfaith leaders to come through the IFYC’s programs, and someone who continually inspires me on a daily basis.

Bottom line: I believe the faith divide isn’t between the religious or non-religious. For that matter, it isn’t between Christians and Jews, or Muslims and Hindus. It’s between those who believe in pluralism — that we can live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty — and those who seek to dominate and divide.

We may not agree about heaven or hell (or for that matter, if there is even an afterlife). I don’t think we should gloss over these differences — Chris and I certainly haven’t. What I hope we can agree on is the importance of being in relationship with one another. And as I say on the phone to potential young non-religious interfaith leaders and what I want to say to you today:

We need you in the interfaith youth movement. Because we certainly have a lot of work to do — addressing poverty, hunger, human trafficking, the environment, you name it — and I think we can do it better together.

Amber HackerAmber Hacker is the Network Engagement Coordinator for the Interfaith Youth Core, where she organizes the organization’s biennial Conference, internship program, and alumni network. In her spare time, she works as a Youth Group Leader at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @IFYCAmber.

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Hey folks! Check out my latest guest blog for the Washington Post, a collaboration with Chelsea Guenther about our experience at Common Grounds (which I blogged about here and here):

Shared faith in the earth

Today’s guest bloggers are Chelsea Guenther and Chris Stedman. Chelsea is a graduate of Agnes Scott College who will be coordinating the multifaith living community for the Cal Aggie Christian Association at the University of California – Davis beginning this fall, and Chris is a recent graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School who blogs at NonProphet Status.

Images of black-coated birds and oil-filled waters have flooded our television and computer screens for two months now, and it feels as if there is no end in sight. For the first time in years, we are being bombarded daily with visceral reminders of what can happen when we take our planet for granted. For anyone concerned with ecological ethics, it is not a pretty sight.

One of us is a committed Christian, the other a Secular Humanist. We couldn’t disagree more on the idea of God or what will happen to us when our bodies expire. There is, however, one very large belief we share: The earth is our home.

Two weeks ago, in the midst of the ongoing environmental crisis in the Gulf, a religiously diverse group of students and professionals from across the United States came together at Common Ground, a retreat on interfaith engagement and environmental responsibility. Hosted by the chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College, and Andover-Newton Theological School, we united to discuss the role moral communities can play in advancing environmental efforts. In the beautiful woods of Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, CT, the fresh air, bright sun and pounding rain reminded us of the world we share in all of its natural, fragile splendor.

In our largely urban and industrial culture, we have undergone something of a collective memory loss. Though it should be obvious, it can be easy to forget about the concrete things we all have in common. We share physical space in our communities. We breathe the same air, drink water from the same tap and eat food from the same land. In short, our planet is mutual.

All we have and all that we are depend on the health of this place. Whether we got here by careful creation by a loving God or sheer luck amidst randomness, we have nowhere else that we can live. Be it a magnificent gift or a profound occurrence of chance, this planet is ours to repair or destroy. We may disagree on whether or not there is an afterlife, but we know that life in the here and now depends on our taking action together. With a Gulf full of oil and toxic chemical dispersants already impacting the livelihood of Gulf area residents, it couldn’t be clearer that taking care of ourselves means taking care of the Earth.

This is not a call to save our planet from the mess we have made although, as we know only too well, that is necessary. This is a call to open our eyes and look around – to touch the earth and know that we are a part of it because it sustains us. And it is a call to connect with one another. This relationship is reciprocal: The more we connect to the Earth, the more we will connect to one another. The same is true in reverse.

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.

This is the second of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoaned in his first reflection, is uploading them on this lunch break.

As I reflected on in my last post, I recently spent a week in the woods with a cohort concerned with interfaith approaches to ecological efforts organized by the Chaplaincy at Yale University, Hebrew College and Andover-Newton Theological School. The speakers were remarkable and included Forum on Religion and Ecology co-director Mary Evelyn Tucker and Policy Advisor for the New York Mayor’s Office and author of Green Deen Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. All who presented were engaging and interactive, but one exchange in particular really stuck with me.

art greenDuring an afternoon session we were privileged with the presence of the brilliant Rabbi Arthur Green, a prolific author and Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University and dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. As a part of his conversational session, Rabbi Green detailed his story of being raised in a culturally Jewish but religiously Atheistic home — I’ll do my best to accurately represent it here. Around the age of 10, Rabbi Green experienced an internal transformation and converted to religious Judaism. He became captivated by the so-called “religious questions” of life. Then, after several years, he began to realize that he didn’t buy into a theology of God and abandoned his faith. But a few years later he returned to the religion, wanting to continue wrestling with the questions that drew him to religious vocation in the first place. He has been working as a Jewish leader ever since. But it was the questions that religion seeks to answer that brought him back, not a belief in a personified God.

As I sat there listening, I experienced a sensation that can only be described as a close cousin to religious experience. In Rabbi Green — a Jewish man much older than myself who was ordained as a Rabbi in 1967 and studied under renowned civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — I saw a mirror. This man’s story eerily echoed my own. He was, in a way, telling my own story to me. Hearing him speak, chills ran up my spine and my eyes nearly welled. I tried to gauge my surging and strong emotional reaction but was at a loss. Why was this happening to me? So we had similar experiences. “So what.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, I knew I had to say something. I raised my hand and, voice a bit shaky, gave him a brief synopsis of my religious history — my conversion at the age of 11 to Evangelical Christianity and the moral and communal impulses that predicated that identification move; how I left the tradition after some years of wrestling with problematic theologies that ultimately left me unable to reconcile the doctrinal postulations of religion with my own lived reality; and an eventual commitment to align with religious communities in their social justice efforts without a historical tradition of my own. I identified the significant parallels in his story and mine, and then posed a question: did he think one who is interested in the “questions of religion” and in relating to and utilizing its language, such as he and I both, had to work from within? I explained that I too had found traditional notions of a personified diety to be fundamentally limited and particular structural elements of religion too restrictive. But like Rabbi Green, I continued that I also wanted to address the questions of religion within my work — on my own, in organizing moral secular communities, and in coalition with others equally concerned (aka the religious) — but from outside of traditional religious paradigms. So I wanted to know: why had he decided that, for him, that could only be done from within a tradition? Do you need to be religious to engage the “religious questions”?

Rabbi Green responded that he wanted to be ancestrally rooted in a way that allowed him to employ the richness of religious rhetoric and story; to immerse himself in the “echo chamber” of a tradition that would allow him to evoke and speak from thousands of years of moral history — and then demonstrated this by contrasting a goosebump-inducing articulation of the story of Cain and Abel to a standard “secular” story of betrayal. After he did I could see why it would be easier to illuminate such mores within the historicity of a particular tradition, but I hypothesized that his ability to return to religion might have had something to do with the fact that he was raised around Jewish traditions and language. For him, it was second nature. But I grew up in a secular context and so there was nothing for me to “return to” after I left religion. Bouncing back into Christianity as a non-theist, or adopting another brand of non-theistic religiosity — which admittedly I tried with stints as a Buddhist and God-as-metaphor Christian — just seems co-optive and dishonest for me.

I guess I’m just interested in broadening the echo chamber to incorporate all people, all traditions, and all stories — and I think Rabbi Green is too, or else he wouldn’t do the work he does in the way he does. But I also believe that we are in a place culturally that we were not when Rabbi Green was coming into adulthood. Today individuals without a belief in God can openly engage the questions posited by religion, both taking the conclusions religion has amassed seriously and adopting secularism as a base. This is perhaps why I never became a Unitarian Universalist, which seems like it should be a natural fit in its permittance of non-theism but still feels personally inauthentic to me.

We secularists can adopt religious forms like community, service, story and ritual, but apply them to a secular model that is separate but engaged. This engagement means that we can and should perform these endeavors in communion with religious people, stories and ideals — and in doing so we can more effectively lift up the important moral issues of our time, such as the ecological imperative we tackled at Common Grounds. I believe that today we are well situated to engage from without, establishing our own moral frameworks and language that run parallel to those of the traditionally religious. Perhaps in doing so, this dichotomy of within and without will dissolve altogether. But until that day comes, I’ll be trying to think of a “secular story” that can come close to Rabbi Green’s telling of Cain and Abel. Anyone up for the challenge?

This is the first of at least two reflections on the Common Grounds interfaith environmental retreat. Chris wrote these on the worst Megabus ride of his life and, in the spirit of the busy life he bemoans in the words below, is uploading them on this lunch break.

It’s been over a week since I last updated this blog which, if I’m to believe the “rules of blogging,” translates to years of radio silence in the fast-paced realm of internet media. Every resource I’ve consulted about blogging says the same thing: “Blog. Daily.” A week without new content and you may as well call it quits. The blogosphere is a fickle lover.

I haven’t followed that rule because 1) I just don’t have the time to post every day, and 2) I don’t want to publish something that I don’t think is worth circulating. In other words, I’m a sucker for the ol’ “quality over quantity” mantra, even when it works against me in “building a brand.” But this blog has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations – though I’ve just been figuring it out as I go along, NonProphet Status has amassed a loyal and sizable following. I guess it’s you I’m talking about now, isn’t it? So this is the part where I say “thank you for reading, oh loyal faceless reader! I hope you didn’t disappear forever in my absence.”

incarnationAnd I guess I really do mean that. This blog exists for public writing – words that exist for more than just myself, writing that I hope will find its way to readers and stir in them a response of some sort. So it is because of you that I am sorry to have disappeared without warning for over a week, but it was a worthy sacrifice. No, not even that – not merely worthy, and not at all a sacrifice. It was a necessary reprieve. You see, I was in Connecticut for a week for the Common Grounds pilot program, a collaborative project of Yale University’s Chaplain’s office, Andover-Newton Theological School, and Hebrew College on interfaith engagement and environmental responsibility. It was five days of speakers, workshop sessions, hiking, swimming, sailing on the Connecticut River and, most importantly, community building – all at the beautiful Incarnation Retreat Center near Ivoryton, CT.

The week was full. But I wasn’t just too busy to blog, or too focused on the activities of the retreat – I simply couldn’t get online as the facilities were without internet. It was a total sea change for me; living in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Chicago and working extensively on media strategies for disseminating a narrative of interfaith cooperation at the Interfaith Youth Core, I spend a significant percentage of my day in front of a computer screen. Yet today, as I sit in front of my laptop, it couldn’t be any clearer to me that I’d rather be back in those woods. The internet has lost its luster.

Last week I accessed a part of me that I’ve been a bit disconnected from this year (realizing that it’s been so long is a bit jarring, I must admit). By unplugging from my vast and various online networks, I recalled something I’d forgotten since the three weeks I spent last summer in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota: how important it is for me to be immersed in what many religious folks call Creation. Back in this cavernous concrete chaos called Chicago, I feel the absence of unmolested mud puddles, boundless trees, shoeless days – the undemanding pace of the unpaved world. I miss star-filled skies, penless peacocks, the quiet hum of mosquitos and the echo note of a single drop of water returning to the earth. I miss appreciating rather than ruing the sunrise. I miss uninterrupted birdsong. I miss silence.

Before moving to Chicago two years ago I spent so much time outdoors, but it has proven difficult since I got here. I’d like to re-prioritize and make it happen more often again. Why is it so easy to participate in a culture so disconnected from our natural world that we have to schedule time to escape into it? What does it say that we even distinguish it as the “natural world” instead of just “the world”? As we discussed at Common Grounds, perhaps this disconnect is why it has been so easy for us to destroy our planet. You can’t feel sorry about trashing something that doesn’t really exist to you. Maybe we’ve retreated from retreating to soothe our own guilty consciences.

My return to the infinite urban landscape isn’t the only thing throwing off my groove today; I also miss the people I met. Last week a ragtag team of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Indigenous, Christians, Pagans, Muslims, and me, the self-proclaimed Secular Humanist, spent five days making known our entire selves. A crystalizing moment was standing in front of the collective conference at the week’s end and delivering a rap I’d written with others there, accompanied by a man on guitar, another on harmonica, and a chorus of beatboxers. It’s been a while since I’ve rapped for anyone, and it was a constellating enterprise. I had no performance anxiety; in fact, I was ecstatic to share in that experience with them. We created something of a “sacred space” together where expressions were honored and embraced. It was collaborative and comfortable; our conversations were intimate and important. That sort of extensive exposition isn’t common in day-to-day life, and stepping out of it was a sharp divorce. I made some fast friends; now the community we carved out is dispersed across the continental United States. I miss it, and the person I was in it. I am working hard to bring that person back into my routines.

These profoundly intertwined aspects of the retreat – the solitude of the “natural world” and the warmth of deeply engaged community – proved the ideal situation for some much needed personal reflection. My ship ran aground at Common Grounds and I was forced to slow down and take stock of my rations. It has been pretty smooth sailing lately – I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of accolades and opportunities recently, from awards to speaking invitations to personal celebrations of my work – but those affirmations made it easy to continue the fast pace I established during the throes of my thesis-writing, exacerbating a bad case of “doing, not being.” I’d lost sight of the “slow down and notice” mode I resolved to model. And while I do not wish to deny the opportunities I’ve been so lucky to receive, I’m also rethinking some of my priorities. I’m once more asking the so-called religious questions that come from a shared life. What are my deepest desires? What will I demand of myself? What matters most? How can I make this world just a little more balanced for myself and for others?

I think I began to resolve some of these questions last week but, when it comes to the so-called religious questions, revelation is ongoing. The authority and responsibility of an ethically godless life requires a commitment to this endeavor. I’ll continue to ask, and to listen for answers. And I think that ambiguous process is easier when done in communion with others, such as those I was honored to know last week, and perhaps best facilitated apart from the distractions of our modern world. My heart hurts today, and it’s a symptom suggesting just how important this retreat was for me and why I need to more actively cultivate some of those aforementioned components of retreat. So for this lunch break I’m turning this thing off and going for a walk, to listen instead of type or talk.

Check back this week for another reflection coming from the Common Grounds retreat, on an exchange I had with the Rabbi Arthur Green about working within or without traditional religious paradigms.

dog-sleddingSorry for the lack of updates! I’ve been in limbo — in Minnesota visiting family and friends for secular Christmas with limited internet access. I’m still here but will be back with a vengeance in 2010. Until then, here is your (delayed) religion roundup and, to compensate for my slacking, a picture of me sledding with the family dog (dog-sledding… get it?!). And to those who celebrate something this time of year: Happy ____!

The Terrorist Next Door: The New York Times has an informative piece on homegrown terrorism and how this year’s incident at Fort Hood challenges the widespread assumption that America is relatively safe from homegrown terrorism (as opposed to European nations) due to more economic and social opportunities for American Muslims. The article credits the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as partially responsible for this shift. The role of religion in this conversation is huge, and it is important that we approach it with sensitivity and empathy. This article of course eerily preceded yesterday’s near-hijacking of a plane bound for Detroit, though the suspect, claiming ties to al Qaeda, was Nigerian.

Welcoming the Stranger: An inspiring story for the holidays about one of the many ways religious communities are doing good work across the country — the New York Times has a profile on a New Jersey Church that is drawing upon its religious convictions in an encouraging way. The young pastor of this congregation is working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to spare immigrants detention; the article suggests that this might signal a new trend in immigration rules under the Obama administration. This, to me, is a story of a Christian community truly “following in Christ’s footsteps.”

Restricting Religion: A new study from Pew explores the many ways religious freedoms are restricted globally. A disturbing highlight: 70% of all countries restrict religion in some way. Oof.

Faith and Climate Change: I know we secular folks often feel religion can be a stumbling block in environmental efforts, but in truth religious communities are taking a real lead in the movement. Washington Post’s always-excellent On Faith recently featured a piece on how faith communities gathered in Copenhagen for the climate change talks. Certainly worth checking out.

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